Boston's Krill gives us a healthy dose of existentialist objectivity masquerading in post-punk grit -- and maybe one of the most singular albums we'll see this year.
As we grow older, at some point we begin to lose interest in the critical currency of our inward gaze. The staggering pillars of judgment against ourselves and our friends should begin to topple, leaving an array of complex qualities that live outside of the traditional definitions we’ve clung to. This will perhaps be due to new levels of personal growth of the subjects of our gaze -- your “funny friend”, for example, no longer relies on their sense of humor to keep relationships alive but has found a way to be more themselves, allowing other facets of their personality to shine -- but it is no small part a by product of the development of the witness. In this regard, we (as witnesses to the world) share the responsibility of keeping everyone else (the witnessed) in the roles they occupy through our expectations and unforgiving attitude toward change and the grayer areas of human existence.
In the press release for A Distant Fist Unclenching, the newest full length from Boston post-punk trio Krill, singer / bassist Jonah Furman discloses his attempts to “somehow rise above the questions of ‘Am I good or bad? Do I deserve love or hatred?’ and think about what underlies those questions." This departure from the binaries of a younger worldview is critical to A Distant Fist Unclenching.
The band’s previous release, 2013's Lucky Leaves, dealt heavily with the quagmire of the ego. Its songs hinged on "I" statements about depression, rigid definitions of morality, and contempt for self. Furman boldly embraced pain as not only an important element of the human experience, but the only marker of authenticity. On “Oppressor”, Furman unpacked the privilege of peace with acidity: "If you were having a good time / When everyone else was suffering / Then you were the oppressor" precedes the self-condemning "Whenever I have a good time / I just miss my suffering / I am the oppressor." You couldn't help but be reminded of Nausea or Notes From the Underground, in which central characters are made heroes for their discomfort.
A Distant Fist Unclenching explores the other side of angst. Though Krill's songs have always been weighty, irreverent and intellectually sharp, this album is a new marker for both the band and Furman's growing understanding of his self. He seems sick of framing his developing world view in terms of his own existence: “What’s the proper orientation of my self to my non-self? / What’s the proper orientation of my non-self to me? / What’s the proper orientation of the world to my non-self? / What’s the proper orientation of the world to me? / Does it always have to be to me?”. Instead of following the spirals of Lucky Leaves, Furman makes wonderful use of grotesque metaphor to strike existential chords.
The result is the mundane made horrific. Opener “Phantom" paints a Kafka-esque scene that turns a two day old glass of milk left in a microwave into the stuff of nightmares. “Torturer”, the album's first single, explores the experience of objectivity turned on the self by displacing the listener's sense of normalcy and expectation. By presenting the protagonist as visiting the home of a literal torturer "in black mask and spiked collar", and later revealing that the torturer and protagonist are one in the same, Furman blurs the line between "self" and "other". When he craves to "go back inside", the listener is left unsure of who is really speaking, inspiring a strange sense of Dostoevskian dread. Furman's uneasy and wavering delivery, reminiscent of regional predecessor Frank Black, proves the perfect mode of transportation for these tales.
While Furman has said that “Torturer” is "what most Krill songs have ever been about: self-love and self-hate and the rightness and wrongness of each," he seems to be more comfortable (or at least capable) of grappling with and even embracing the gray areas in A Distant Fist Unclenching than Lucky Leaves. When he unpacks the inevitability of death in “Tiger”, he is able to present expiration as both utility and tragedy masterfully. For Furman’s villager eaten by a hungry tiger (a necessary death, in the eyes of the tiger), “The tragedy is / The villager was well-liked / The villager was well-liked / By friends and family and tiger alike." Death is a fact, but the emotions that surround it are dictated by the living, by our subjective valuing of life.
The album’s back half slips into the autobiographical, but the band has earned it by the time “Mom” comes around, a track that finds Furman grappling with his 61 year old mother’s self-hatred, realizing it’s not up to him to dictate or judge what makes her happy. “Squirrels” lets Furman re-enter the comfortable arena of doubt (“To be given / One shot / And to know I / Will blow it”), wishing he could be anything other than himself to get a chance away from his head and closer to someone else. Rather than plunge him deeper, the exercise seems helpful as his certainty of future failure reduces to merely a potential outcome. “Brain Problem” moves well and highlights Ian Becker and Aaron Ratoff on drums and guitar respectively, but might be the album’s most lyrically heavy handed track. On it, Furman keeps a little cynical distance from himself, but it’s possible he’s also tired of being the subject of his own dissection. “It Ends” sends A Distant Fist Unclenching out on a pained whimper rather than a shout, but there is strength in this. “Am I the pest or the beast? / I thought that you had meant Boston / When you said you were moving back East” is the album’s most transparent and heartbreaking phrase.
The experience of listening to A Distant Fist Unclenching is what makes it a powerful album. Sure, the sonic of these nine tracks is catchy enough to make a decent bid for the best of 2015, but there's something else at work here. I mean, when was the last time a song made you existentially ill? After a year of emotion-centric albums, it’s an odd relief to spend some time exploring the other facets of the human experience. Furman is an able and sharp lyricist, with a gift of presenting high concepts clearly and without too much gravitas. The whole band is at its strongest, presenting a meticulously crafted aural background that undulates and crests expertly.
In short, A Distant Fist Unclenching stands out. It is the first in what I’d imagine is going to be a series of standouts from Massachusetts-based bands this year (with Pile’s newest on the horizon and Speedy Ortiz's Foil Deer set to come out in April). Ignoring this album or not giving it a full chance to worm its way in will absolutely keep you comfortable. But why be comfortable? Be Krill, Krill, Krill forever.